Over the past few years, the Chicago Tribune has published numerous articles for which White Oak's Executive Director, Melisha Mitchell, was either interviewed and/or assisted with the background research for the story...You'll find several of those articles below, as well as two "letters to the editor" written by Ms. Mitchell which were also published in the Tribune...All of these articles are copyrighted by The Chicago Tribune and most can be accessed through the Tribune's Web site (for a moderate fee...).

Several of the adoptive mothers interviewed for this September 2001 article searched for their children's birth parents through The White Oak Foundation...

Adoptive Parents Help Children Find Birth Families

by Lorna Collier

Linda Strodtman always knew that one day, the two children she and her husband had adopted as newborns would want to meet their birth mothers. Earlier this year, Strodtman helped make that happen to the delight of her children-and the consternation of some of her friends.

"They cannot understand this, why I'm not uncomfortable," said Strodtman, 57, a nursing professor in Ann Arbor, Mich., who adopted Andrew, now 18, and Susan, 15, through The Cradle, a Chicago adoption agency.

"They think I should feel threatened. No way do I," said Strodtman. Instead, she said, she believes her family has been enriched by the experience. Her children are "at better peace," no longer worrying and wondering about their birth families, but rather enjoying relationships with newfound siblings as well as discovering more about the missing pieces in their backgrounds.

The reunions-which have taken place by letter and phone, not yet in person-also have not damaged or diminished the relationship Strodtman has with her children.

"If anything, it has brought us closer together," said Susan Strodtman, who began the search for her birth mother with Linda's help last summer, using post-adoption resources offered by The Cradle as well as information Linda discovered on the Internet. Susan spoke with her birth mother on the phone for the first time this past Mother's Day.

Adoptive parents today are increasingly being faced with the prospect of their children reuniting with their birth families, as open adoption has become more common and Internet searches more viable. Yet not all adoptive parents are as worry-free as Strodtman; for many, the idea of a birth parent entering the picture raises a disquieting swirl of emotions, including fear that they will lose their place in their child's heart, as well as confusion over what their role in the search and reunion should be.

"You say you don't have any, but at some level there is a certain amount of jealousy," said Joyce Jones, a Wheeling saleswoman who recently tracked down her 33-year-old adopted daughter's birth mother. (Jones asked that her real name not be used to protect her family's privacy.)

"We all have our own amount of insecurity," said Jones. "I knew [my daughter's birth mother] could never be her mother, but on some level, she is. I raised [my daughter], I took care of her her whole life, but I didn't give birth to her."

Jones fought off her fears and went on to make the initial contact with her daughter's birth mother for her daughter, a decision she has not regretted.

Yet her initial concerns are typical of those held by many adoptive parents, said Julie Jarrell Bailey, co-author of "The Adoption Reunion Survival Guide" (New Harbinger Publications, $13.95).

Drawing Closer

"Reunion can be a difficult time for many, many adoptive parents," said Bailey, herself an adoptive mother of three boys as well as a biological mother who gave her daughter up for adoption, then reunited with her two decades later.

Although many adoptive parents worry that their relationship with their adopted child will suffer if the child finds his or her birth parents, studies have repeatedly shown that the opposite is more likely to occur. As with the Strodtman family, when adoptive parents support their child in a search, the parents and children usually wind up even closer than before, experts say.

"The search process creates an opportunity for deepening the bond between adoptee and parent," said Cheryl Rampage, senior therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, which offers classes and counseling to help parents and their children handle adoption issues. "The best searches I know about have been a collaborative effort between the adoptee and his or her [adoptive] parent."

Sometimes, the reunion helps an adopted child put to rest the fantasy of a perfect, idealized "real" mother or "real" father, said Bailey, clearing the way for a more honest, deeper relationship with the adoptive parents.

Family Traits

Many adopted children also appear to be helped by finally getting answers to lifelong questions about their roots. Strodtman said she believes her children are happier now that they have seen that certain talents and traits--Andrew's musical gifts, Susan's love of animals--are shared by biological family members. Susan also has discovered that her hair and eye color come from her birth mother.

"It was a neat experience," said Andrew, who had his first contact with his birth mother in February. "I've been learning about all the traits I get from my mother and father's side.... My birth parents will not replace my `parent' parents, but they occupy a special place [in my life]."

Given that adolescence is typically a time of questioning identity, being able to see their reflections in family genes can be a comfort, say some adoptive parents.

"I saw that my daughter was never going to be a totally happy person until she resolved a lot of these questions in her mind," said Jones. "She seemed to have a real need for that connection."

It is relatively rare for adoptive parents to be in charge of the search for their child's parents. About 5 percent of those searching for biological kin in a recent survey were adoptive parents, according to Melisha Mitchell, field representative of the Illinois branch of the American Adoption Congress.

A Range of Support

Mitchell found that 37 percent of the adoptees perceived their adopted parents as being "extremely supportive of their desires to seek out their biological roots." However, 30 percent were thought to be "opposed to the search." Another third were considered neutral, never having expressed any particularly positive or negative opinions.

Catherine Weigel Foy, a social worker and director of graduate education at the Family Institute, advises adoptive parents to support their child's wishes and to grant permission for a search.

"It's thought that a lot of adoptees don't search because they fear hurting or betraying their adoptive parent," she said.

Some adoptive parents support their child so much in the search that they make the first contact with the birth parent, usually to protect the child from the pain of rejection. However, some experts say this level of involvement is not usually a good idea.

A Proper Role

"Adoptive parents need to step back and let their child lead the search and reunion process," Bailey said. "I believe that it's entirely appropriate--if requested by the child--for a parent to be in the same room when the child makes that first phone call, or to proofread a letter the child writes to his birth parent.

"However, for the parent to make the phone call, or write the letter is, in my opinion, crossing over from being supportive to being controlling and/or overprotective."

Even if the reunion does not turn out well, psychologists today generally are in favor of adoption searches, said Rampage, believing it is better "for adoptees not to live with this permanent fantasy, wondering who were these people. Even if the story is tragic, it may be better for some adoptees to know this, rather than live under the shadow of doubt."

However, due to the possibility of negative results, Rampage said reunions typically are not recommended for children until they are at least in late adolescence.

"I think the child's ability to understand the possible consequences [before late adolescence] is extremely limited," she said.

Exotic Roots

Jan Carpenter, 47, is a Chicago stay-at-home mother to a 3 1/2- year-old daughter adopted in China; she expects another daughter from China this fall, and plans to bring her older daughter along on the trip, partly as a way to show her daughter where she came from.

Several years ago, Carpenter, who is adopted, reunited with her biological family, with the support of her adoptive parents, whom she said were always open with her about her adoption and provided her with what information they had.

"I think it's so important if a child wants to know information about their biological history, either from their parents or through a search, that the parent is comfortable with the subject and is able to nurture them through their questions and/or a search," said Carpenter. "In my mind, that support is a way of respecting the individuality and history of that child."

Since her reunion, Carpenter has kept in touch with her birth relatives, some of whom her parents also were able to meet. She said the process brought her closer to her adoptive parents "as being the ones who loved me through my life."

Feeling Excluded

However, adoptive parents should realize that sometimes in a reunion, the adoptee and newly found birth family experience a period of enthrallment with each other--a "honeymoon stage," during which the adoptive parent may feel shut out, said Bailey.

For example, she said, "I have a friend whose daughter's birth family found her. They were running across the country making plans to meet. The adoptive mom said to me, `I feel so crushed. I feel so left out of everything.'"

Bailey advises adoptive parents to communicate their frustration to their child, but also to be patient and give their child space during this honeymoon stage.

Eventually, said Bailey, the child will come back to the relationship, which is what occurred with her friend, who now is busy helping her daughter plan a wedding.

"I think it's important for the adoptive parents to be there, even if only in the shadows," said Bailey.

"The adoptive parents are the real parents. If they have had a good relationship all their lives, it's not going to change just because the child meets a biological connection. This gives the entire family the opportunity to expand their circle," she said.

`Nothing to Fear'

Karen Bevers, 61, helped her son, 36, find his birth mother in Illinois last September by using the Internet. Since then, her son-- raised as an only child--has learned he has two sisters and a brother, and has frequent contact with his birth family.

Bevers said that adoptive parents whose kids want to find their birth parents "have nothing to fear. If they've had a loving, bonding relationship with their child all these years, they should want their child to have the answers, and want their grandchildren to have medical information and know their heritage. It's their right.

"There is a chance the reunion might not go well, but then nothing in life is guaranteed. There needs to be closure and peace in everyone's heart."

Younger Adoptees Also Need Answers

Rather than attempting a reunion with a child's birth parents, adoptive parents of younger children seeking information about their biological parents should use other means--conversation, reading books about adoption or therapy--to "help their child accept their adopted status, accept the loss of their original family and feel comfortable with the family they have now," said Cheryl Rampage, senior therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston.

Susan Stein, a Chicago mother of two adopted children who asked that her real name not be used to protect their privacy, has had to try to answer her 8-year-old adopted daughter's repeated questions about her birth mother, even though she has little information to give her, because the adoption was closed.

One of the few details Stein has about her daughter's birth is the name of the hospital where she was born. One day, after making arrangements with the hospital's social work staff, Stein took her daughter to the hospital for a visit.

"The nurse on duty was an older woman who had been working there a number of years," said Stein. "She showed us the nursery and told my daughter, `I can't say for sure, but I possibly could have taken care of you.'"

Stein took a picture of her daughter with the nurse, as well as photos of the nursery and the outside of the hospital.

"Then we wrote a story about our trip to memorialize what we had done and to help her have some record," said Stein. "What I hope to do one of these days is make a scrapbook for her of the photographs and the story, so that she begins to have a piece of something she can hold onto for herself."

The visit seems to have helped quiet some of her daughter's concerns, said Stein, who knows, however, that these questions will more than likely resurface. When they do, said Stein, she wants to make sure her daughter knows she can come to her and her husband with whatever is troubling her.

"My goal with her is to make her feel confident that we, her parents, are going to be fine," said Stein. "Whatever she decides to do, that it's not threatening to us; that we love her and that we understand her feelings of pain on the subject. What I've tried to say to her is that it makes me sad that she is sad, but it doesn't make me sad because she's talking about it."

Stein has told her daughter she will help her search for her birth family when she is older.

-- Lorna Collier